Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's ambitious neo-Ottoman policy calculus has earned Turkey unprecedented international isolation. Turkey won the title of being the world's only country that was sanctioned by all of the United States, Russia and the European Union in the past five years. Turkey's negotiations for full membership in the EU have come to a halt and the European Council has started infringement procedures against NATO's only Muslim member state. Obsessed with reviving Turks' imperial days of glory, Erdoğan is turning to Turkey's east to create a pan-Turkic/Islamist strategic alliance consisting of Turkey, Azerbaijan and Pakistan, with part-time, tactical alliances with Iran, Qatar and Bangladesh.
The idea is to bring together three Muslim nations: NATO member Turkey; Azerbaijan with its rich hydrocarbon resources and growing military capabilities; and Pakistan with its nuclear weapons.
The slogan "one nation, two states" has gained momentum particularly after Turkey's military and logistical support to Azerbaijan during the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 2020, which ended up with major Azeri gains over Armenia. Azerbaijan has become an increasingly demanding customer of Turkish-made weapons systems. Turkey has invited Azerbaijan and Pakistan to its TF-X program, an ambitious plan to build a new generation of an indigenous fighter aircraft.
Turkey's arms sales to Azerbaijan have surged in recent years. In 2020, Turkish-made defense and aerospace exports to Azerbaijan increased six-fold. Similarly, between 2016 and 2019, Turkey became Pakistan's fourth-largest arms supplier, surpassing the U.S., while Pakistan became Turkey's third-biggest arms market.
In 1988, Turkey and Pakistan established a Military Consultative Group aiming to strengthen military and defense procurement relations. As cooperation deepened, the group expanded and evolved into the High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council (HLSCC). In early 2020, Erdoğan and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan co-chaired the sixth session of HLSCC and signed 13 memorandums of understanding (MOUs), five of them related to the defense industry.
Under one contract, Turkey would build and sell four multi-purpose corvettes to the Pakistani Navy. Earlier, in 2018, Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) signed a $1.5 billion contract to sell a batch of 30 T129 attack helicopters to Pakistan.
It is not a coincidence that Erdoğan has visited Azerbaijan more than 20 times during his presidency. In September 2021, the Azerbaijani, Turkish, and Pakistani militaries carried out an eight-day-long joint military drill in Baku, dubbed "Three Brothers - 2021." Throughout 2021, Ankara, Baku, and Islamabad have discussed ways to bolster trade, investment, transport, banking and tourism after signing the Islamabad Declaration that aims to deepen economic interaction between the three Muslim nations.
To have political clout in Afghanistan's future, Turkey is working closely with its staunch Gulf ally, Qatar. In early December, Erdoğan and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani signed 12 MOUs across various fields, including the military, healthcare, tourism, and education sectors, among others. Qatar's foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, explained, "Qatar will work with ally Turkey and Taliban officials to ensure that Kabul's international airport, the site of chaotic scenes after the Taliban takeover, continues to function."
Ankara appears to hope that the U.S. exit from Afghanistan has created space for the leadership role of Turkey and Pakistan. Some scholars agree.
"For 20 years, we've had the U.S. in the region as an extra-regional force, but with the boots on the ground. And now that they have left there is a political vacuum ... There are geopolitical dynamics," said Rabia Akhtar, who leads the Centre for Security Strategy and Policy Research (CSSPR) at the University of Lahore. "Pakistan is right at the heart of it. And it is not only Pakistan, but it is also Iran, it is Turkey."
On December 23, after a 10-year hiatus, the first freight train from Pakistan to Turkey through Iran, named the Islamabad-Istanbul rail service, departed. It was a major boost to the trading capabilities of the three founders of the Economic Cooperation Organization. The move came after several years in which the U.S. followed a policy of "maximum pressure" against Iran to isolate the country by severing all modes of international trade with the Islamic Republic.
Earlier in December, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia reached an agreement on establishing a transit route connecting the Persian Gulf to the Black Sea. This transit route can potentially link with the Islamabad-Istanbul rail service and further boost connectivity in the region, given that Pakistan and Turkey are both close allies of Azerbaijan in addition to having strong trade relations with Iran.
It all looks promising. Except it is not.
Take, for example, the Turkish-Pakistani deal for T129 attack helicopters deal. This sale has not moved forward because TAI has failed to secure U.S. export licenses for the contract. The T129 is produced under license from the Italian-British company AgustaWestland. It is powered by engines made by LHTEC, which is a joint venture between the U.S. firm Honeywell and the British company Rolls-Royce.
In short, the Turkish-Pakistani military deal became a casualty of a Turkish-U.S. dispute over Turkey's acquisition of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system.
Then there is China. Following the Taliban takeover, China was the first foreign country to pledge emergency humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Security on China's western frontiers, and for its Belt and Road projects in Central Asia and Pakistan, is essential for Beijing. It also needs a favorable security system in the region to protect its economic interests. The traditional China-Pakistan alliance is evolving into a Chinese-Pakistani alliance in Afghanistan where there may be only a too-limited role for Turkey. "There is likely to be deeper strategic cooperation between China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia, and Iran, on counterterrorism efforts and crackdown on illegal drug trade," said Mercy A. Kuo, executive vice president at Pamir Consulting.
China has also been traditionally suspicious of covert Turkish governmental support for its Turkic-Muslim minority, the Uyghurs, whom the Chinese Communist Party views as a fundamental security threat. Earlier this year, the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States, also known as the Turkic Council, changed its name to the Organisation of Turkic States, adding to Chinese (and Russian) suspicions over potential pan-Turkic separatism. The Turkey-led move to upgrade Turkic-speaking states' cooperation into a political unit that could weaken Beijing's and Moscow's influence in Central Asia will no doubt come under close Chinese and Russian scrutiny.
Then there is the Iranian ambiguity. The "Three Brothers - 2021" military exercises in September sparked heightened tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran as the Islamic Republic perceived it as a security threat, particularly due to Pakistan's involvement. In response, on October 1, the Iranian military kicked off its own military exercise, code-named "Fatehan Khaybar," near Iran's border with Azerbaijan. Shortly after these military drills, Azerbaijan closed down in Baku a mosque and an office operated by the representative of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Tehran is also faced with the threat of ethno-nationalistic separatist tendencies among its own Azeri Turkic population. The Turkic minority in Iran, the largest, is estimated at 14-20 million people in a country of 84 million people total.
Another Azeri-Iranian friction is about reconstruction contracts after the most recent Nagorno-Karabakh war. Tehran has been disappointed by Baku's generous awards of construction projects to Turkish or Pakistani companies instead of Iranian bidders.
In theory, Iran is Turkey's "Muslim brother." In reality, it is (Sunni) Turkey's (Shia) sectarian adversary, historical rival and cross-border contender in Shia-majority Iraq and Shia-ruled Syria.
Finally, Azerbaijan is still more of a Russian turf than a Turkish one. More Azeris speak Russian than those who love to roar the Turkic slogan "one nation, two states." Pakistan remains China's strongest ally and appears happy to consider itself Chinese territory.
Erdoğan's pan-Turkic/Islamist ambition will be good for both Russian and Chinese interests: it will mean further Turkish engagement eastward and further weakening its already-strained ties with Western institutions, most notably with NATO. Moscow and Beijing will no doubt be able to control any foul play by the infant Turkic/Muslim bloc.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based political analyst and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.